I'm not very fond of course evaluations. Or rather, I like to get feedback from the students, but I dislike the fact that I have to summarize these evaluations and write a report (a "course analysis"). That report should (for example) state what the students though about different aspects of the course and what changes have been made in the course since the last time it was given etc. yada yada. During those few occasions when I actually have summarized students' course evaluations, I have not received any feedback and I thus don't see the point of it all. To summarize; I don't think anyone reads what I write. And if they do, I don't get any feedback. And if I do, I don't get any help to discuss and think about new ways of changing or improving the course in question - because that would of course cost money (someone else's time) instead of "just" incurring costs in terms of my time (and work satisfaction). It really is every man for himself; as a university teacher you are free to improve (change) your courses as much (or as little) as you want, but the demands are low and the institutional support for improving the quality of the courses is even lower.
Not writing course analyses is a small act of disobedience on my part. I would actually love to write them if I got something out of it (like constructive feedback from a "qualified" or least interested discussion partner), but since I don't, I often won't. From this year though, I've decided to actually write something that could maybe be regarded as a course analysis of kinds here, on this blog. These coming blog posts will probably not be very interesting for the casual reader of this blog. They will be interesting for the students who have or will take the course, for me (to return to next year) and perhaps for someone in my organization.
For the same reasons that I dislike to summarize students' feedback, students hate to fill out course evaluations. If I ask them to do it on the web, many don't no matter how many times I remind them. And why should they? I can understand that it is hard to motivate yourself when you don't get any feedback, don't see the results and don't know if your opinions have an impact, make a difference or if they evan are acknowledged in the first place, i.e. the same reasons why I myself dislike to produce course analyses.
For those reasons, I decided to exchange the course evaluation for a "gripe session" in my social media course (most recent blog post here) that ended this past week. My experiences of gripe sessions come from science fiction conventions; an informal meeting at the end of the event where organizers get the opportunity to hear both praise and complaints from attendants. Some of those in the audience might attend the gripe session because they are next in line to organize the next convention and thus have an interest in not repeating mistakes that might have been made.
Transferring this feedback format to a university setting, I disseminate a single page with just three questions and asked the students to take a few minutes to think about them and fill them out ("what were the three best things in the course?", "what were the three worst things?", and "what could be improved?"). Posing these questions is also a way to get students to start thinking about the course. I wrote down a number of different categories on the blackboard that students might have opinions about (lectures, seminars, administration, examination etc.). Then students then had the opportunity to raise opinions (both praise and complaints) about different aspects of the course. We unfortunately had only 30 minutes for the whole gripe session and while it was enough time to take down their opinions and also provide short answers, it wasn't really enough time for in-depth discussions about any of the issues. Note-to-self: make sure to have at least 45 minutes for the gripe session next time around
The format has many advantages compared to traditional course evaluations and I specifically see two large advantages:
1) Students know for sure that their opinions are heard and they can even get (short) answers and perhaps also explanations about why things were the way they were right then-and-there from me.
2) Both me and the students get to hear what other students thought, and we will together get a better understanding of what both individual students and what the class as a whole thought about (different aspects of) the course
For any course, some students will like it better and others will like it less. Having a discussion is a great way to "neutralize" (?) outliers. When a student expresses an opinion that is contradicted by another student, I am to some extent relieved of having to defend or explain specific decisions - since the students themselves are of different opinions about that/those issues. The whole event will also give students an idea of if their opinion is shared by others or not.
Since this more specifically concerned a course about social media, I also managed to justify the gripe session format in terms of social media terminology. Ordinary course evaluations are "one-way", based on a "hub-and-spoke" architecture where the center (the teacher) controls all communication. Such exercises turn students into passive "course evaluators" (c.f. consumers, viewers, readers, listeners). A gripe session instead has the potential to turn students into active "discussants" (c.f. producers, participants, storytellers, players). A gripe session makes a one-way conversation social by opening up the a course evaluation so that everyone can participate in the process of evaluating the course.
During a course, I like to be able to post administrative messages to a blog and have students leave comments on the blog if they have any questions. Every course participant can see both the question and the answer and sometimes students can even answer the questions of other students faster than I do. It sure beats having questions mailed to me privately and it offloads my incoming email. Course evaluations (paper or web form) are like e-mail - private communication between each student and the teacher. A gripe session is like commenting on the blog - a discussion out in the open that everyone can listen in to.
I haven't had time to look at the actual course evaluations yet (that's the topic for another blog post), but I very much thought the gripe session was productive and successful and will for sure use that format again in other courses. A "problem" might be that the gripe session format will yield less hard information ("on paper") than a traditional course evaluation. I wonder if that will get an "ok" by "higher-ups" who perhaps expect me to analyze and sum up lots of written information (that I haven't collected) into a report? A gripe session in combination with writing up a text and publishing it on the blog will on the other hand be a lot better than what I handed in last year (i.e. nothing).